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Litigation News

Spring 2020, Vol. 45, No. 3

Mindful Drinking?

Joseph Beckman


  • The legal profession has perhaps a more complex relationship with alcohol than the average line of work.
  • Ditching the labels might give a nonalcoholic a leg up.
Mindful Drinking?
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

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As noted often, the legal profession has perhaps a more complex relationship with alcohol than the average line of work. A recent journey, and some subsequent reading, prompted me to wonder about the flip side of the coin—our profession’s relationship with sobriety.

To refresh, the 2016 Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation/ABA study of substance abuse, depression, and anxiety of over 12,000 licensed and employed lawyers and judges revealed some startling facts. To begin, over 23 percent of respondents believed their use of alcohol (or substances) was a problem at some point during their lives. This statistic does not include lawyers who are known to enjoy an adult beverage (or several) on occasion, but who did not self-identify as belonging to the 23 percent who reported alcohol as a “problem” at some point. (The author did not participate in the survey.)

The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) is a 10-item self-reporting instrument developed by the World Health Organization to screen for hazardous use, harmful use, and the potential for alcohol dependence. The AUDIT generates scores ranging from 0 to 40.

Scores of 8 or higher indicate hazardous or harmful alcohol intake and also possible dependence. Scores are categorized into zones to reflect increasing severity, with zone II reflecting hazardous use, zone III indicating harmful use, and zone IV warranting full diagnostic evaluation for alcohol use disorder. For purposes of this study, the ABA study used the phrase “problematic use” to capture all three zones related to a positive AUDIT screen.

Over 36 percent of those responding to the ABA study survey had an AUDIT score consistent with hazardous drinking or possible alcohol abuse or dependence, suggesting that about one-third of lawyers who may have an alcohol problem are not particularly conscious of their plight. Let’s check that call with the replay official: Yes, over one-third of lawyers who responded may, at best, be in denial as to how problematic their relationship with alcohol is.

Sober Curious: It’s How You Feel about Alcohol

Type “sober curious” into your favorite search engine, and links to blogs and influencers will populate the screen. Such websites typically do not contain the type of information that forms the basis of an expert opinion we litigators would endeavor to put into evidence. That lack of hard science, however, may be the point.

As Bustle’s Leah Wiggins said in October 2018, “a new alcohol-related trend has started to take hold that defies all that: The sober curious movement. In a nutshell, identifying as sober curious means you know from experience that alcohol doesn’t make you feel great and you don’t drink it often, but you’re not willing to put an all-or-nothing label on yourself.” That is perhaps the key to the success of being sober curious. As Wiggins says, “[w]hat makes the sober curious movement so unique—and effective—is the fact that people simply go off of how they feel, rather than putting themselves in a restrictive box.”

There are undoubtedly ties to the continued explosion of awareness and measurement of overall health and wellness. Very few people dispute that, on the whole, drinking has more negative impacts on health than positive ones. As we wear watches that monitor our steps and the length and quality of our sleep, among many other health-conscious functions, it perhaps becomes harder to ignore the impact of multiple nights in a week with too little sleep—with a possible report from your smart watch of how “poor quality” your sleep was—or the “hair of the dog” that often accompanies a night with too many cocktails.

Is Sober Curious a Panacea? A Cottage Industry? A Sham?

There is no “one size fits all” way to sobriety. Every recovering alcoholic has her or his own story. Some swear by Alcoholics Anonymous; others have only negative things to say about it. Some believe formal treatment programs that combine the latest in medical knowledge with tried and true therapy techniques are the way to go.

It seems clear to me, after a lifetime of interaction with alcoholics of all types, including 14 years as a volunteer guardian ad litem where often one, if not both, parents struggled with some type of substance abuse, that there is no one route from addiction to sobriety, so why judge? Ultimately, if a route to sobriety works for Person A but fails for Person B, it still worked for Person A. So, if “sober curious” holds the potential to work for you or someone you care about, is it worth the investment of time, thought, and effort to investigate it? Period? Full stop? Full steam ahead?

A Personal Perspective: Joining a Loved One on a Journey

A couple of years ago, a family member committed himself to a rehab program. This was not his first experience with such a program, but unlike his initial trip—the result of, in effect, an intervention—his second trip was entirely self-directed.

Some background here might be appropriate. While I have never been shy about enjoying a favorite malt beverage, the existence of a couple of alcoholics on each side of my family tree left me mindful of the slippery slope. As a result, starting my sophomore year in college, I instituted a “dry month” ahead of my spring finals. The month invariably ended 20 minutes after my last final. After law school, the “dry month” would often stretch a week or two or more beyond the initial 30 days.

So when this relative went into treatment a second time in early 2018, I let him know, “I’ll be joining you on your sober journey.” An annual familiar ritual began a couple of months early, and the beer came out of the fridge.

When this piece was written in early January, he was about to hit his two-year “sober birthday.” “Sobriety” is the watchword for us both, a fact to which my companion, the bulk of that period, can attest.

While I “broke” from being 100 percent alcohol free on Valentine’s Day 2019, it is very unusual to consume more than one or two beers a month and very rare to have as much as two in a single sitting. Morning wake-ups feel fresher and more alert than they did back when a strong weeknight beer or two was more the rule than the exception. Mere awareness of the shared sober experience also feels like it strengthens that familial connection, as each is maintaining mastery over a shared genetic predisposition toward alcoholism.

What is the bottom line? Maybe it is as simple as considering investing in yourself by picking up a book on being sober curious and giving it a read or listen. Who knows—perhaps there is an idea or two within the book that changes how you feel about your relationship with alcohol and inspires you to make some healthy changes in that relationship.

What have you got to lose?